News on Australian Women Writers

There has been much talk in book-ish circles here in Australia recently about the place of women in the publishing industry – as writers, reviewers and readers. One event which has helped spark discussion was the announcement of the 8 books (one from each state in the country) chosen in a public vote to represent ‘Our Story’ for the country’s national year of reading and the fact that only one of them is by a woman. This fact has been discussed in disparate snippets in the press and and radio but this Crikey piece gives a fairly balanced take on the complicated issue. The response by organisers of the National Year of Reading to any criticism is, not unreasonably, that the voting was open to the general public. However they’ve been far less forthcoming about how the shortlists were chosen (shadowy ‘independent panels’ were involved) and there were 48 books on the shortlist (6 for each state) and only 18 of those were by women.

Another factor prompting discussion of this issue was the release of a second year’s worth of figures from the US showing the percentage of books written by women being reviewed in the media and also delving into the gender of the reviewers themselves. Locally the ABC’s new daily Books & Arts show took a look at the Australian perspective on this subject last week with a lively discussion between Monica Dux (board member of the new Stella Prize), Jason Steger (The Age literary editor) and Linda Leith (a Canadian writer and publisher). The discussion went for about 20 minutes and is a good one if you are interested in this subject, and the Australian version of the US figures also make for interesting reading.

Of course it could be a coincidence but surely mine are not the only eyebrows to have raised at the announcement of this year’s Miles Franklin Award longlist. The Awards’ historical domination by male authors, including an all-male shortlist last year, was part of the impetus for the establishment of the Stella Prize (an annual prize for Australian women’s writing) but this year its longlist of 11 books contains 6 books by female authors! I am, of course, a crusty old cynic but I can’t help wondering if the Miles Franklin people haven’t been tempted to take the wind out of the sales of the Stella people.

Or it could be that all the discussion of this issue over the past year or so has made everyone, including the judges, more award of author gender as an issue which in turn has had an impact on their thinking. Much of the commentary about this issue has revolved around the idea that the bias towards male authors in many spheres of reading is the result mostly of unconscious biases in all of us so the mere fact of raising awareness of this issue must be having an impact. Surely?

And if you’re worried that you might be suffering an unconscious bias of your own why not join the Australian Women Writers reading and reviewing challenge? It can be as easy or as arduous as you choose and it’s a good way to motivate yourself to read books you might not otherwise read.

 

8 thoughts on “News on Australian Women Writers

  1. Bernadette: I have always expected I read more books by men as I am a male.

    Generally, I try not to read about a new author to me until I have read at least one of their books. I feel I am influenced in my thoughts about a book if I know a fair amount about the author.

    If I could read books without even knowing the author’s name I take that route.

    • I too prefer to know less about the author Bill – it’s one of the reasons I’m not a huge one for attending author readings and festivals and so on.

      I suppose we are drawn to books by people of our own gender – though most studies show that women read more books by men too – at least in most genres (crime, sci-fi, literary fiction – about the only genre where this doesn’t apply is romance but that’s because there are so few male writers).

  2. Maybe all authors should just use their initials so that nobody knows. A recent criticism of the latest Waterstone’s publicity attempt – a recommended booklist – was that none of the authors were international, by which I think the critic may have meant that the authors were all white Brits (I have not checked this but the post & debate were at Kim’s blog Reading Matters).

    I don’t mind what I read so long as it is good but since I have been reviewing online and therefore collecting up stats now and again, I realised there were some imbalances. I do now make an effort to keep the gender balance about right, but it is very hard to get it all right when you bring in other factors such as international spread of authors, translated, etc — and of course one’s own reading tastes. For example I’d hate to be forced to read a genre that I didn’t like, just for balance. So on one level, one should just read what one wants to, I suppose.

    • I agree Maxine that we should all read what we want and I really don’t make too much of the ‘gender’ thing in my own reading as I seem to naturally read a mixture.

      I was very anti the notion of a women only prize when the Stella was first announced (being of the “women will win if they’re deserving” view) but I am slowly coming around to the idea that any biases which do exist in the broader landscape are unconscious and therefore consciousness does need to be raised and such prizes can play a part there. Where I do worry is when something – a prize or a list or whatever – is meant to represent a certain thing (as the Miles Franklin award is meant to represent the best of Australian-ness) and it is not inclusive. If all you knew about Australia was gleaned from the winners of that award you would think we were all old, white men who live in the bush and that we all died in about 1930 ;)

  3. I gravitate towards women authors, but have found many male authors whose work I like, so it all works out. But when I read a few years ago a list of the best mysteries of the year at a popular crime fiction bloggers’ webiste, and only one of 30 writers listed was a woman, my dander was ruffled. That was Nina Revoyr for The Age of Dreaming, a fine book, but were there no other worthwhile books by women? And then I read an article in a British newspaper about a discussion with a male book reviewer who admitted — rather proudly, I thought — that he never read books written by women! So how could books by women even get reviews in that newspaper? And then I began to learn a bit more about this phenomenon.
    Vida’s surveys of majority male reviewers reviewing books by largely male authors was another education — by all journals/newspapers they studied.
    And I still see mystery prize nominations where the categories are all male writers or where perhaps one woman is chosen in one or two categories, so the total may be 2-3 women out of 25-30 authors nominated. Still going on.
    I think Sisters in Crime has done a lot of great things here in the U.S. and in other countries as well in promoting women authors.
    There are many boys who won’t read books written by women, hence the J.K. Rowling style with initials. And, I fear, that continues through adult life unless the reader deliberately chooses to go further.
    But this thing happens so often. A male blogger from a particular country wrote a list of famous and/or excellent poets on his website. They were all men. I asked if there weren’t good women poets, too. Then a poem appeared right away by a female poet.
    A lot of this is unconscious and automatic. If it’s pointed out, sometimes it’s corrected, sometimes not.
    The discussion awhile back at Tara Moss’ website on all of this raised such good questions.
    But I think until women do get equal recognition, reviews and accolades there is a need for Sisters in Crime and other such organizations with conferences, panels and prizes for women.
    I think it’s extremely ironic that the Miles Franklin Prize, named after a woman author, had a male-only shortlist last year. Surely the woman being honored through the prize, who was a pioneer for Aussie women writers would have been rather shocked by that.
    Glad there is a Stella prize.

  4. Bernadette – As the years have gone by I’ve gotten a little more cynical myself, so I understand what you mean about the Miles Franklin prize. I generally don’t like groups, prizes etc. that seem to set up divisiveness (of which there is enough already thank you). But the sad reality is that the proverbial dice have historically been loaded. So I can see the reason for Stella.
     
    As for my personal reading, I don’t think a lot about gender myself when I’m choosing what to read. I do think about it though when it comes to what I discuss on my blog. I don’t make a concerted effort to include exactly the same number of male and female authors on every post, but I do try to have a balance. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. I like reading books by women writers and always have done. My absolute favourite writers by and large are women. However I have met people over the years who prefer not to read books written by women and it is difficult to have a rational discussion about it.
    I think the worst thing to do is ignore the fact that books by men and women are often different in tone and sometimes subject matter. I think anything that tries to readdress a gender imbalance is probably a good thing (and i am taking part in the AWW2012) but it won’t ever tackle the root cause of the problem.
    It’s important to remember it’s not just confined to books. In the UK the public just voted for the BBC sports personality of the year and all 10 on the shortlist were men. There’s a bit about the controversy here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2011/nov/28/bbc-sports-personality-award

  6. I naturally tend towards female authors and if anything probably need to do a little more to work towards gender balance by reading more male authors.

    From memory, there were some female authors on the Miles Franklin longlist last year – it was really the announcement of the shortlist that caused the furore. I am not prepared to say that the Miles Franklin judges have taken any steps towards addressing this issue until we see what comes out on the shortlist.

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